In May and June of 2017, we surveyed the Ithaka S+R Higher Ed Insights panel—164 senior leaders and experts at colleges and universities, associations, research groups, and philanthropies—about the state of higher education and the likely impact of recent events and trends. (You can learn more about our Higher Ed Insights Project here.) Today, in “Higher Ed Insights: Results of the Spring 2017 Survey,” Rayane Alamuddin, Daniel Rossman, and I report the findings of that survey.

While respondents were generally positive about the state of undergraduate education in the United States, they expressed urgency about the need to improve degree completion rates, the quality of student learning, and affordability for students. Respondents’ reactions to a list of twenty high-profile higher education events and trends suggest that federal policy is moving in a direction that will not help and may stand in the way of efforts to meet those urgent needs.

Of the trends and events presented, respondents rated the appointment of Betsy DeVos as the US Secretary of Education as the highest impact and most negative. In line with this finding, panelists generally viewed higher education policies advanced by the Obama administration as having a high and positive impact on students or the sector, and viewed both the reversal of those policies and newly adopted policies of the Trump administration as having a high but negative impact.

Across the survey, respondents rated events related to financial aid and student financing of education as having the highest impact on students or the sector. For instance, respondents rated the use of tax returns from two years prior to complete FAFSA as the most positive high-impact event. On the other hand, the reversal of regulations constraining private student-loan servicers, and the unavailability of the IRS’s Data Retrieval Tool to support FAFSA completion at that time and uncertainty surrounding the Trump administration’s approach to income-contingent loan repayment were all viewed negatively and were among the highest impact events.

A similar concern about student financial well-being appears to underlie respondents’ high impact ratings for several items related to for-profit colleges. Respondents viewed the release of the first set of findings under the gainful employment rule, the revocation of accreditation authority from the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (which accredited mostly for-profit institutions), and the downward trend in for-profit enrollment as having a positive impact on students or the sector. Since the survey was administered, the Department of Education has suspended the enforcement of the gainful employment rule.

Another theme of the survey was the respondents’ focus on the importance of state funding for public institutions. They viewed the slight upward trajectory of most states’ appropriations for public colleges and universities over the past two years as high-impact. However, respondents’ comments indicate broad agreement that the increases are insufficient and more funding is needed. Respondents were more divided concerning the impact of the New York State Excelsior program, a scholarship for low- and middle-income students in New York State that covers tuition at public institutions. The program elicited both praise and criticism from the panel, including positive remarks about its influence on the national conversation surrounding free college, and disapproval of its requirement that scholarship recipients reside in New York after graduating.

Respondents’ concern for protecting students extends beyond their financial well-being and career opportunities. Respondents rated the intensification of efforts to prevent and address sexual assault on campus as high-impact and positive. They were more neutral, on average, about the impact of institutions’ efforts to assert “sanctuary campus” status for undocumented students, although they expressed support for protecting those students more generally. The survey was administered several months before the Department of Education’s revocation of guidance regarding campus sexual assault and President Trump’s executive order suspending Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), each of which may cast new light on these questions.

Finally, respondents viewed trends related to both racial and viewpoint diversity on US campuses as important. They rated the Supreme Court’s decision in Fisher v. University of Texas upholding the constitutionality of race-conscious admissions as high-impact and positive, and high-profile student protests prompted by controversial speakers as negative.

In designing this survey, we intentionally focused more on federal policies and national issues and less on institutional practices related to instruction and support than we have in our previous Higher Ed Insights surveys. We believe it is important to surface panelists’ views on these hot-button issues and their impact on higher education. At the same time, we and our readers should keep in mind the advice of panel members in our very first Higher Ed Insights survey: institutional leaders and faculty are the lynchpins for achieving the improvements in completion, student learning, and affordability that respondents to this survey still consider urgently needed. There is much they can and should do, even in the face of national headwinds.

What kind of impact do you believe these events and trends have and will have on postsecondary students? Are there other, more high impact trends our survey missed? Join the conversation in the comments section or by contacting us directly.